IBM announced this month that it will never use genetic data in its decisions to hire applicants or determine employee eligibility for its health care or benefits plans.

Approximately 800 genetic tests are currently available, including those to test for certain neurodegenerative diseases and to determine the risk of developing certain cancers. However, the number of genetic tests will probably expand tremendously in the next decades. Such tests will not only show whether someone is at risk of developing certain diseases but will also predict how well that individual will respond to certain prescription drugs.

While many employers are utilizing the genetic information to offer programs for employees to help them control or prevent diseases, there is always the possibility that employers can use such information to discriminate against “unhealthy” employees. Furthermore, even though employers require consent of their employees before obtaining full rights to the testing of their genetic information, employees generally have little or no bargaining power before surrendering their rights.

IBM’s chief privacy officer, Harriet Pearson, has stated that genetic information “has nothing to do with your employment, how good your contributions are, how good of a team member you are, so making a policy statement in this case is the right thing to do.”

Although IBM’s move may appear to be purely ethical, it seems more likely to be a business tactic. Since IBM is a huge player in medical-information technology in offering a variety of computing technologies for medical and pharmaceutical research, it probably realizes that employees may resist in getting genetically tested if they believe that the medical information will be used against them, thus inhibiting the growth of a key market.

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